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Princeton's Tal Fortgang and the Journey From Jewishness, to Whiteness, and Then White Racism

Whiteness is myopic. Whiteness is also a type of selective remembering and forgetting. Whiteness allows its owners and subscribers to cherry-pick from history in order to fulfill a hard times myth of exclusive and extreme white ethnic struggle, or to deny that they, because their people had “difficulties” in America, are somehow now incapable of being “racist”.

The converts—the Poles, Russians, Italians, Slavs, Jews, and others—whose people have only recently crossed over in 20th century America from being “quasi white” to “fully white”, are among the most visceral and impassioned defenders of Whiteness.

They are like the religious convert prone to fundamentalist zealotry, strapping a bomb on their bodies, railing against the “non-believer” or “apostate” in order to prove that he or she is the truest of the true believers.

Being late to a party often means that one tends to drink a bit too much in order to catch up with the guests who arrived either early or on time. Religion and racial identity often follow the same guidelines.

The person whose people are one or two or even three generations removed from crossing over from nebulous Whiteness to those now considered “normal” and “regular” white people often find themselves working hard to be more “White” than any other “white” person.

My relatives, by blood, kinship, or adopted, always warned me to watch out for a white person who just figured out that they are in fact “White”. Why? Because people like that are very dangerous and treacherous. Their race pride, based on nothing but a new found discovery that they too are now able to put their foot on a black or brown person’s throat (or even those who they view as not "really white") is so tempting to them—few can resist its power.

Whiteness can be a slippery possession. It is also a performance where some try to outdo their peers in a day-to-day competition along the colorline, fighting to protect and earn White Privilege.

Princeton University’s Right-wing angry white male wunderkind Tal Fortgang has received much attention this week for his spirited essay in defense of White Privilege.

Tal Fortgang is a beneficiary of fortuitous timing: the last few weeks have seen a storm of white folks behaving badly; he is the newest star of the moment.

Cliven Bundy is the racist hillbilly. Donald Sterling is the racist multimillionaire caught on tape disparaging African-Americans while speaking to his black-Hispanic mistress. Tal Fortgang is the privileged young white man straight out of central casting who answered a call for a racist arrogant country club type.

For Tal Fortgang, White Privilege is something earned and magically transmitted to him like the Divine Right of (White) Kings through blood by the hard work of his ancestors (and of course black and brown people do not have this legacy). Thus, Fortgang is a living version of a popular truism: he was born on the 3rd base of life and honestly believes that he hit a home run…and was denied the score by a group of cheating black and brown umpires.

The origins of Tal Fortgang’s success in gaining the national media’s attention ought not to be mysterious.

He is a product of a Right-wing media machine that is looking for a fresh face. There is nothing organic or spontaneous about Tal Fortgang’s essay in the Right-wing rag “The Princeton Tory”. He is a mercenary, propped up by his connections, who will use him to throw up flack and chaff as an agent of the Right-wing noise machine. A high volume of fire is the Right-wing’s preferred strategy—even if they rarely hit their targets. But as Stalin observed, “quantity has a quality all its own”.

Tal Fortgang is Jewish: his white ethnic identity is central to his shtick and white victimology hustle. He grasps the surface contours of how that category does work for his white privilege/white ethnic hustle without really understanding the history upon which it tenuously stands.

The beautiful, grotesque, ugly, irony of Tal Fortgang’s essay is that Princeton and other Ivy League institutions had anti-Jewish quotas through to the middle part of the 20th century.

Jerome Karabel, author of book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, explains how:

Harvard, Yale and Princeton, up until the very early 1920s, had an exam-based system of admission. If you passed you were admitted. If you failed you were turned away. If you were in the gray zone, then they might admit you on conditions but basically, if you passed, regardless of your social background, you would be admitted.

Leadership, Character

That was precisely why the system was judged to be no longer viable because too many of the wrong students, the ``undesirable'' students -- that is, predominantly, Jewish students of East European background -- started to pass the exams.
So an entirely new system of admissions was invented with emphasis on such things as character, leadership, personality, alumni parentage, athletic ability, geographical diversity. They started, for the first time, to do interviews. They introduced photos. A lot of things, which we take for granted today, in fact, were introduced in this period and have endured to the present…

Well, at Harvard, the Jewish proportion of the freshmen class in 1925 had reached 28 percent and shortly thereafter, after a very protracted and bitter struggle, which lasted from 1922 really to 1926, Harvard imposed a 15 percent quota. At Yale, the proportion of Jews had reached toward 14 percent and in 1924, they imposed a 10 percent quota. At Princeton where the proportion of Jews had gotten only to 3.6 percent, they decided that that was excessive and they cut the proportion of Jews to 2 percent in 1924. That's in contrast to African Americans, who were totally excluded from Princeton until 1945.

Writing about Karabel’s book, The Boston Globe's John Silber discusses how:

The flow of freshmen to the Big Three could be carefully controlled, however, by opening new tributaries and cutting others off. After succeeding Eliot as Harvard's president in 1909, Abbott Lawrence Lowell briefly served as national vice president of the Immigration Restriction League; those whom Lowell could not keep out of the United States could certainly be kept out of Harvard. As Karabel astutely notes, Harvard's first genuinely selective admissions process, in full force by 1926, was not designed to improve the intellectual caliber of the student body; if it had been, test scores and transcripts would have sufficed.  

Instead Harvard established a regimen of individual interviews and letters of recommendation designed to take measure of a young man's character. Behind the scenes admissions officers scrutinized enrollment cards for town of birth, family names, parental occupations, and other information with a single question in mind -- what degree of Jewishness did the student demonstrate? Was he a J1, conclusively Jewish, or perhaps a J2, a student whose file showed a ''preponderance of evidence" of being a ''Hebrew"? If so, the student faced stiffer odds of admissions under Lowell's unofficial 15 percent quota for Jews in each freshman class.

The situation at Yale was little better: Despite Yale's professed mission to educate the nation, The Yale Daily News called for an ''Ellis Island for Yale" to make sure incoming students were of suitable ''character, personality, promise and background." At Princeton, admissions officers mimicked the selection process for the newly founded Rhodes scholarships, where ''scholarship and character" were judged equally. ''Character," Karabel notes, was a vague quality ''thought to be frequently lacking among Jews but present almost congenitally among high-status Protestants."

Given Tal Fortgang’s belief in the intangible’s of “character” and “hard-work” passed down to him by his ancestors, the fact that Jewish Americans were not seen by White Elites as possessing those traits should be a wake up call against his defense of White Privilege.

I doubt that it will resonate for him. Tal Fortgang is not capable of understanding how the White Elites who discriminated against his people, as well as African-Americans and other people of color, would also hold him in low regard.

Tal Fortgang’s youthful ahistorical Whiteness will find strength in Princeton’s anti-Jewish quotas as he will see them as one more credit in his metaphorical account of white struggle and white victimology.

A more evolved, ethically grounded, wise, and reflective person would see his or her history as one who is newly White, and whose people were subjected to ugly discrimination and prejudice, as a reason to find common ground and sympathy with black and brown Americans.

Moreover, an evolved, principled, and critically self-reflective white Jewish American, would understand that White Privilege is nothing to defend or celebrate, as that same logic was used to justify discrimination and bigotry against his or her people as the “natural” order of things.

As a member of the hip hop generation, listening to Public Enemy while I figured out my own “blackness”, and who came of age watching the trouble between Hassidic Jews and Blacks in New York during the 1980s, I am very fascinated by the supposed “special” relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans.

To point. I have fond memories of listening to Cornel West talk and write about the role that Jewish brothers and sisters played in supporting the Black Freedom Struggle.

And yes, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem remains one of my favorite books despite its problematic conceit that Jewish suffering is greater than that of the Middle Passage, centuries of chattel slavery, and then decades of Jim and Jane Crow for black Americans in the world’s “greatest democracy”.

Hell is hell; such a conclusion does not mean that one ought to be blind to hard questions about disparate material outcomes and realities along the colorline, and as experienced by different groups in the United States and elsewhere.

As scholars such as Matthew Frye Jacobson and Karen Brodkin remind us, Jewish Americans only recently crossed over to Whiteness in the aftermath of World War Two.

Unfortunately, the bargain that mated “Jewishness” with “Whiteness” for people like Princeton Right-wing darling Tal Fortgang, involved picking up the baggage of white racial resentment and White Supremacy.

Race in America is an animal kingdom. A person or group can choose to be predator or victim. As a group, white ethnics chose to be the former as a function of crude material self-interest. Such a decision may be understandable or even rational. It does not absolve white ethnics and those others now seeking Whiteness of moral culpability or responsibility for what that bargain entails.

Whiteness is a choice. It obligates its members to betray the full human rights and dignity of those deemed “non-white”.

Once more, as Brother Noel Ignatiev said so beautifully in Race Traitor, treason to Whiteness is loyalty to humanity.

Should white ethnics such as Tal Fortgang (and we also should not overlook how Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling--original surname “Turkowitz”--is also a Jewish brother) be held to a different standard of racial justice given their roots in a group most recently grandfathered into Whiteness, and that experienced horrible discrimination because of their cultural and “racial” identity?